[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Highways England compensation payments for residents of Broadway in Chadderton.
This is my first Westminster Hall debate, Ms Dorries, and it is a pleasure to speak in it under your chairmanship. I will set out why I felt it was necessary to call for this debate, and the history of the scheme, before asking the Minister to respond to the concerns expressed repeatedly by residents living in the area. The issue has been going on for some time, and was previously dealt with by the right hon. Michael Meacher, before he passed away. I have come to it towards the end of the scheme. I am hoping that my speech will be received positively. People affected by the scheme might be watching the debate, and they are hopeful of some conclusion to a long-standing issue.
To provide some context, Oldham is a young town, and demand for school places is significant. A determined effort by the local council has seen many new schools built, with the support of Government. The John Henry Newman College is one of them. It was formed from Our Lady’s School in Royton and the St Augustine School in Oldham. The new school is now home to 1,400 pupils.
The new school site at Broadway was selected after a thorough assessment and, despite legitimate concerns about the impact on traffic and highway safety, local people by and large supported the project. The issue has been long and drawn out, however, with delays over site selection, the possibility in 2010 of funding being cancelled and, after the eventual building of the school, the ongoing fight for compensation payments by residents living near the site.
The scheme consisted of the construction of a signalised junction to create a new access to the site of the school that was being built. To facilitate that, the road needed to be widened with additional lanes, and a cutting had to be made into the parapet where the properties are in a significantly higher position than the road. The scheme required dedicated turning lanes and new signalling works, lighting and road markings. However, no measures to reduce noise or the visual impact of the scheme were put in place. As we can imagine, for example, the headlights of cars exiting the site shine directly into the windows of the house opposite, where previously there had been no road junction.
The road, to put it into perspective, is the A663, a busy trunk road that becomes the A627(M) motorway, which in turn connects the M60 Manchester orbital motorway to the M62. The road carries about 30,000 vehicles a day and, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs noise chart, the location under discussion has prevailing road noise levels in excess of 70 dB both day and night.
The properties in which my constituents live have been the subject of previous compensation claims. Those properties are predominantly brick-built, semi-detached houses with pitched slate or tile roofs, usually dating from the post-war period. As the House will appreciate, where properties are so close to the road and at a higher level, they are particularly affected by noise, including the noise of cars standing at the traffic lights with their engines idling. That noise travels up—a problem in addition to the headlight problem I mentioned.
Those affected by the scheme rightly sought compensation under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973. Evidence was supplied of previous Lands Tribunal decisions by professional experts highlighting similar schemes, including two that were agreed with the solicitors of some Broadway residents and the Highways Agency working with other residents. Evidence of other schemes for which property devaluation agreements were in place was supplied.
I had hoped to meet Highways England staff, but I am afraid that I was put on a Bill Committee because of my new Front-Bench responsibilities, which did not allow a meeting to happen. Notwithstanding that, a long series of correspondence took place between the highways body and Michael Meacher, when he was here. Local councillors who have been leading and supporting local people have been involved.
In similar schemes, the loss of value of properties has been accepted. No two schemes are the same, and any assessment of compensation payment will always look at the individual scheme on its own merit—I accept that completely—but it is important to highlight nearby schemes in which A-class roads have been widened and traffic lights installed, resulting in compensation payments. The Lands Tribunal decision on a new junction for the Parrs Wood scheme in Manchester returned a maximum of 7%; on a road widening scheme just up the road at Hunt Lane, Broadway, the maximum was 5%; further on again, on a road widening towards Middleton Road, Broadway, the maximum was unknown; and on the new junction improvements on the A56 Chester Road at Helsby, the maximum was 7%.
Given the location under discussion, clear evidence suggests that properties have reduced in value as a result of the road widening scheme. I will refer to two properties in particular—properties A and B. Property A is an extended and substantially modernised four-bedroom, semi-detached house, which sold for £175,000 on 20 March 2014. The same property sold for £200,000 on 14 August 2007. Between 2007 and 2014 that property had decreased in value by £25,000—that is a matter of public record. Property B, also on Broadway, is a three-bedroom, semi-detached house, which sold on 18 October 2013 for £156,000. On 6 January 2008, it was purchased for £165,000. That property too was sold for less than its purchase value only a few years earlier as a direct result of the market conditions following the road widening.
Moreover, the residents applied for their council tax to be re-evaluated to take into account the change in the neighbourhood. In 2012, the valuation office made the decision to reduce the council tax banding. The Highways Agency was aware of that, but refused to acknowledge any relationship between the road widening and that decision, which is contrary to the correspondence that took place at the time.
To conclude, I am hoping that the issue is straightforward. The scheme should have been really positive—a brand-new school was constructed, which provides a fantastic educational facility for local children, with 1,400 of our young people benefiting, but it required engineering that has affected people who live nearby. Local people accept that the school is a positive contribution to the town, but if their property value has been affected as a result, clearly compensation payments should be made.
The school and the necessary engineering works required public investment of about £30 million and, given that context, the compensation payments requested are minor, but for someone whose property value has been affected the amount is significant. The issue has gone on for far too long. Today, I would like to make progress and to get some resolution so that residents can get on with their lives instead of entering a drawn-out tribunal process, which will cost them quite a lot of money and take even more time, when this is a straightforward matter.
It is, as ever, a delight to be in your presence, Ms Dorries, and to serve under your diligent chairmanship. It is also a delight to welcome the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), as a newish Member, to his first debate in the Westminster Hall Chamber. I congratulate him on securing the debate, which follows the work of his predecessor, a distinguished Member of this House who served his constituents for a very long time.
Ms Dorries, might I offer the hon. Gentleman, through you, some advice that he seems already to have followed, even if he has not heard it? When approached by constituents about these kinds of things, you and I try to put ourselves in their position. We try—I know that this is true of the way that you serve your constituents, if I might say so, and it is certainly the way that I serve mine—to imagine how we would feel in similar circumstances. We ask, “What would we feel like if this were our home, our community and our family’s interests?” That is precisely what he has done in bringing this debate to the Chamber, and I commend him for that. It seems that he did not need my advice, but I offer it anyway, as a more experienced Member to a newer one.
Given the overtures that were made by the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, this case is familiar to Highways England and my Department. As he says, it concerns the A663 at Broadway, a busy urban trunk road linking the M60 with the A627(M) and the M62. It is an important link between Oldham and Manchester and forms part of the strategic road network, for which Highways England is responsible.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the local authority, Oldham Council, constructed a new school, the John Henry Newman College, on previously disused land close to the road-widening scheme. It is wonderful that the college should be named after that great man, who by the way is one of my heroes—we do not have time to discuss that at length. None the less, the council, having agreed in response to local demand to construct that new school, was obliged to make changes to the road, and those changes are the alterations to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The changes were designed to allow safe access to the site, and the council took powers under section 6 of the Highways Act 1980, which allows local authorities to make such changes to the strategic road network where such a development is taking place.
It is worth listing the improvements that were made. They included the construction of a new signalised junction, giving access from the A663 to the new school; the widening of the carriageway and the construction of a new footpath; the creation of dedicated turning lanes into the school from both northbound and southbound directions; and the construction of central islands to help pedestrians cross the road. Improvements were also made to the road itself. The junction between Broadway and Foxdenton Lane further south of the school was improved, including by widening the carriageway on all four arms of the junction and improving pedestrian refuges. As the hon. Gentleman will know, all those alterations were completed by around September 2012.
Following the completion of those works, a formal submission was made by a land claims agent representing the interests of 32 households. Compensation was claimed under part 1 of the Land Compensation Act 1973 for residents living close to the new access to the school. On that occasion, Highways England did the proper thing and sought advice from a valuation consultant on the changed property values. Indeed, it went further than that and sought advice from two experts in that field, because it felt that that was the right thing to do.
The Minister is quite correct in his assertion that two separate experts were selected, but can he confirm that those experts were both in-house, not independent of Highways England?
They were valuation consultants, who are accustomed to dealing with these things and in so doing adopted the appropriate empiricism—indeed, that is their stock in trade—to gauge whether the changes in the values of the properties that the hon. Gentleman has suggested took place could be attributed to any of the environmental factors that would entitle the 32 households to compensation, such as increased vibration, increased noise or even light pollution from headlights shining into homes. Those experts would have taken those things into account, though he will have some good news at the end of my short but fascinating speech along the lines that he has just implied.
The problem is that when those tests were applied, the claim was found wanting. The hon. Gentleman has made the case that the value of the houses has fallen, and I am not in a position to dispute that.
Order. If anyone in the room would like to take their jacket off, they should feel free to do so. The heating is apparently broken. The temperature is about 25° and I think it is going to get hotter, so please feel free to disrobe.
Ms Dorries, I never remove my jacket, except in the most extreme circumstances. One of those is playing competitive sport, and as I am not doing so, I will not remove my jacket, but I am grateful for your typical generosity and indulgence in giving me permission so to do should I wish to.
As I said, the valuation that was done does not necessarily contradict the hon. Gentleman’s assertions. He has provided evidence that values have indeed fallen, but I suppose the point that I was making—for the sake of emphasis, I make it again—is that according to the expert analysis, the criteria on which compensation could rightly have been paid, according to the basis that applies to all similar schemes, were not met. In essence, that means that there was no loss in property value as a result of the physical factors—I described them earlier as environmental factors—arising from the alterations to the A663. The question is really whether any loss in value met the necessary terms and conditions set out in the Land Compensation Act 1973. In truth, the A663 was already a busy urban route, and a signalised pedestrian crossing was already in place on that road before the roadworks were undertaken. The new access to the school is not in constant use but is used largely at the beginning and end of the school day, as can be expected.
The hon. Gentleman understandably made a point about council tax banding. I was aware of that point. However, it is clear from the council tax decision notice issued by the local authority that the rebanding was due to the presence of a new school rather than the road improvement scheme. Highways England fully accepts its obligations under the 1973 Act and never seeks to deny the payment of compensation that is due, but it has no power to pay compensation that it does not consider to be payable statutorily. Highways England has accepted the views of its valuation consultants and no claim has been paid with regard to the A663 junction improvements, and he will know that the claimants were advised accordingly in March 2015. He made reference to the possibility of appealing, and he will know that the Act allows a claimant who disagrees with the amount of compensation offered by the relevant authority—in this case Highways England—to refer their claim to the lands chamber of the upper tribunal for independent determination. Claimants have until 25 September 2019 to make reference to the tribunal in this case.
As is my wont, I am going to go a little further than I have been advised to do. As I said at the outset, I have been impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s diligence in bringing this matter forward, and I was an admirer of his predecessor, as I have also made clear. If I—like you, Ms Dorries, and the hon. Gentleman—put myself into the place of those affected, I feel a duty to share his and their perspective as much as possible. My second piece of advice to the hon. Gentleman, therefore, is that he obtains a further independent assessment of whether the alleged loss of value can in any way be attributed to the work that has been done and therefore fits the criteria laid out in law. If he brings that to me directly and personally, I will commit to looking at the matter again. That would not oblige the residents to seek a tribunal hearing, which I appreciate is expensive, and it would give him an opportunity to take the matter further. If the criteria cannot be met—or if evidence cannot be brought that they may be met—it will clearly be difficult for me to help him or those residents.
The hon. Gentleman wants to do the right thing by those residents, and I do, too. These debates must have a purpose in holding Ministers to account and encouraging them to go the extra mile to support colleagues from across the Chamber in representing the wellbeing and interests of their constituents.
That was my pre-peroration. Before I move to my exciting peroration, I give way once more.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Given that I do not get to come back at the end of the debate, I should take the opportunity to say that I find that very constructive. I am thankful on behalf of the residents of Chadderton for the opportunity to present that assessment at a future date.
It is my willingness to be constructive that has built the solid reputation I enjoy on the Opposition Benches, in which I take such great pleasure. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his complimentary remarks and look forward to hearing from him further on this important subject for his constituents.
Question put and agreed to.